By Phillip Ratliff
Running parallel to Birmingham’s robust classical music history, and occasionally intersecting with it, is its lively tradition of music criticism. For three decades, starting in the 1960s, the city’s music critic was a bon vivant named Oliver Roosevelt. Harvard trained in music composition, Roosevelt styled himself as a cultured man-about-Birmingham, teaching music appreciation at UAB and taking the occasional swing at musicians. Arguably his most beloved target was Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conductor Amerigo Marino, a violinist and arranger (and avid golfer and gambler) who cut his teeth in Hollywood sound studios. After a particularly harsh review of a Marino-led performance (Roosevelt complained that his Aunt Minnie was a better conductor), Marino challenged Roosevelt to switch roles. Roosevelt, whose confidence probably exceeded his ability, accepted the challenge.
In more recent times, Michael Huebner has sat in Roosevelt’s seat as Birmingham’s full-time music critic. A musician turned writer, Huebner brought with him a more technical and restrained approach to musical advocacy. In addition to composition, Huebner also studied ethnomusicology and music theory. He especially appreciates contemporary classical and world music.
Huebner arrived in Birmingham in 2001, from Austin, Texas, when conductor Richard Westerfeld was at the helm of the recently rebooted Alabama Symphony Orchestra. The Alys Stephens Center was beginning to find its footing. Huebner was soon championing the Birmingham Art Music Alliance, a consortium of contemporary classical music composers. Maestro Justin Brown’s nationally acclaimed Birmingham career unfolded in its entirety under Huebner’s stint with The Birmingham News.
Huebner spent 13 years with The News, thanks in part to visionary publisher Victor Hansen III. Under Hanson, music, along with visual arts, dance, and theatre, had beat critics. What Hanson and his team accomplished was remarkable, essentially supplying the city’s robust arts scene with those who would help safeguard its health.
After Hanson stepped down and The News moved to publishing a thrice-weekly paper, Huebner’s reviews went exclusively online and were in danger of being drastically reduced. Many feared that the vibrant musical ecosystem that Roosevelt and Huebner had helped maintain was missing a critical microorganism. Huebner eventually took an early retirement from Newhouse, at which point reliable, high caliber music journalism ceased.
Huebner’s fans began asking him if he would find another way to offer up reviews. Huebner, an inveterate concertgoer and writer, couldn’t say no. He teamed up with two singers with web and social media experience—Daniel Seigel and Kathleen Buccleugh—and began exploring an online platform for arts journalism. Last November, they launched ArtsBHAM.com, modeling it after similar sites in Atlanta, New York, Louisville, Miami and Chicago. Huebner, Seigel and Buccleugh created Arts BHAM on principle: the firm belief that arts journalism is vitally important to the city and area, not only with critical writing but with getting the message out with essential information.
ArtsBHAM.com is an idea whose time has come. Although Birmingham is somewhat unique in not having a daily paper, niche coverage like ArtsBHAM.com is becoming the norm, even in cities that do, Huebner says. Media environments are more competitive than ever, and mid-size metro dailies simply cannot offer comprehensive community coverage, certainly not of and for arts communities. The genius of ArtsBHAM.com is that arts consumers are already social media savvy and engaged in discourse. Production costs are relatively low and the town has a critical mass of arts hungry readers and writers who are already in touch with one another on Facebook.
As the arts continue to expand in the city, so does the potential for ArtsBHAM.com to connect to a readership. Victor Hanson III picked up on the city’s disproportionate love for fine arts decades ago. It’s a love that continues to grow. And, if ArtsBHAM.com is the success Huebner envisions, the city’s ever-expanding embrace of the arts will help it be so.